Friday, May 27, 2016

Escaping Q Island with author Russell James

Hands down one of the finest books I’ve read that’s come out of the (late) Samhain Publishing stable is Q Island  by Russell James. Of course I had to track Russell down and pester him.

SRW: Welcome Russell! Let’s get the boring writerly crap outta the way first. Constantly I’m being told to watch my overuse of metaphors and adverbs. In Q Island, you certainly don’t adhere to that rule. But you pull it off beautifully. Your metaphors never get in the way of the story and actually help to propel the narrative, a rare achievement. Have you ever had an editor (or anyone) tell you to cool it?

RJ: I had a writing coach circle a whole bunch of metaphors and ask how they fit into the story. I didn’t have a good answer. They were just off the wall. So after that, it was kind of a challenge to find ones that created the image I was looking for and also stayed within the theme of the scene or fit the character’s point of view.

SRW: Give the Tornado Alley readers an idea what Q Island’s about. But do it very melodramatically please (just because it amuses me).

RJ: A virus gets loose on Long Island, New York that turns people into crazed killers. The government blows the bridges and quarantines the island. Melanie Bailey has an autistic son who gets infected, but does not get sick. In fact, his autism gets a bit better. She realizes he may be the key to several cures, if she can get him off the island. So she has to get him past the crazies, she has to get him past the government soldiers, and she has to keep him out of the hands of a criminal gang leader, who has his own ideas about what to do with a boy who might be a cure.

SRW: Let’s talk about that bizarre first chapter. When I started reading, I was like “What the hell? I didn’t sign on for a book told from the viewpoint of a mastodon!” Defend yourself.

RJ: You wanted the story from the beginning, right? The first chapter was a risk. I wanted the reader to know the impact of the virus from the start and how it became entombed. There’s no infected point of view scenes in the book, so all you’ll see later is the crazies on the attack. This chapter was a chance to know how messed up their world is. I was hesitant to keep it in, but the editor of Samhain at the time, Don D’Auria said to keep it. The man is a horror editing legend, so what Don said went. So it stayed.

SRW: It’s cool. In retrospect, I believe the opening chapter helps ground the book in reality. Kinda.

Russell, the book’s very rough-going in parts. Not the writing! It’s extremely well written. But you don’t shy away from the gore and ultra-violence. Do you intentionally try to push boundaries in your books?

RJ: Q Island is without question the harshest horror I’ve ever written. The infected on the rampage brought a lot of that out. There’s a scene of cannibalism, and I worked really hard to capture the character’s simultaneous psychological repulsion to the act juxtaposed with the overwhelming physical craving to dive in. My wife is reading the manuscript in another room and calls out “Okay, I’m skipping the brain eating.” And I yell back, “No! You can’t! That’s the best scene!”
I hope potential readers don’t think the book is all hardcore horror. This is a very character-driven story, interspersed with sick stuff.

SRW: You certainly know your way around military grade guns, weapons and artillery. Russell, are you a gun-toting, mountain-dwelling survivalist or a heavy duty researcher? 

RJ: I spent five years in the U.S. Army as a Black Hawk helicopter pilot, so I picked up a lot of the military stuff there.

SRW: I could tell there was a good deal of research done for this book. Nice job. I enjoyed how we follow the paths of four very different people until their journey dovetails in a solidly apocalyptic finale. Aiden, one of your protagonists, is a young boy with autism. Not only did you mine his illness to great suspenseful effect, I think you handled it with care and sensitivity. Have you had any personal experience with anyone who suffers from autism? 

RJ: My wife is the principal of a school for children with learning disabilities. She has many autistic children there from all along the spectrum. Aiden’s character is at the far end of that spectrum. My wife has lots of sad stories about how some of the kids were treated before enrolling with her. She was the expert on Aiden. I would ask her whether certain reactions were normal, and what accommodations parents would have to make. That part of the story has brought me some heartwarming fan mail from people much closer to the condition than I am, who are so happy that the autistic child wasn’t the villain. I had one woman come back the second day of a horror con in tears to tell me that her son was autistic, she’d stayed up most of the night to finish the book, and Melanie’s life was just like hers. My wife gets full credit for me nailing the character.

SRW: Melanie, Aiden’s mother, is a warrior, a fierce lioness who’ll do anything to protect her cub. I have to say, though, I was a little taken aback about how she was so willing to have her son studied by the military. Surely she had to know that’d be a living hell for him. 

RJ: Melanie also has this naïve streak in her. She doesn’t realize what a total jerk her husband is, early on she keeps thinking that society will maintain some normalcy. She loses a lot of this as the book progresses, but in her desperation to save her son, with escape from the island seemingly impossible, that naiveté peeks out just one more time. Everyone needs a character flaw.

SRW:  Jimmy Wade is a particularly interesting character. Starting off as a weasel of a street hood, he soon becomes a frightening Big Bad, a very King-like villain. Level with me, Russell…did you have any empathy for Jimmy? Or did you hate him as much as readers will? (I ask because oddly enough I find myself eventually empathizing with a lot of my villains. Doesn’t say much for me.)

RJ: Someone said the villain must be written as if he is the hero of his own story. I really focused on that for Jimmy, how he thinks that none of the bad decisions he’s made put him in the hole he starts the story in, just bad luck and people hating him. Then he goes megalomaniac when finally he gets the power he thinks he’s deserved his whole life. But nah, he’s a spittoon of a human being and I liked the ending of the book.

SRW: Q Island is a zombie book, yet not. I think what makes it more terrifying than your standard stalk and muncher is that the paleovirus is all too real, a common fear these days.  Other than avoiding eating mammoth steaks, what would you advise people to do in such a situation?

RJ: Everyone but my friends and family should confront the infected with absolutely no weapons or game plan. It will leave a lot more canned food and ammunition for the important people. I’ll be living on a stolen thirty-foot sailboat with a lot of fishing gear and spindle-mounted miniguns on the bow and stern. Please call first before dropping by.

SRW: I'll bring mammoth steaks. Back to research, did you read up on the CDC and other emergency plans? Your scenario smacks of reality. (And I read in your afterword, that you don’t know anything about medical procedures and the likes. But your research paid off).

RJ: I did some research on CDC plans in the event of an emergency, then did some common sense extrapolation to match the scenario. All the real medical science credit goes to fellow author and nurse Rita Brandon, who seriously schooled me on infectious disease, hospital protocols, and trauma injuries. She deserves major props for keeping all that in the real world.

SRW: You don’t paint a very pretty picture of the government or humanity in general. (Of course there's Tamara and Eddie, two very likeable, sacrificing characters but they seem to be the minority). Now, horror as a general rule, is a very cynical genre. Do you consider yourself a cynic?

RJ: The inspiration for this story hit after watching what happened in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina came ashore. People were isolated and short on supplies. Society broke down in hours. There were stories of public bus drivers abandoning evacuation routes to save themselves. Police opened fire without provocation. The Superdome became a cesspool. And all this was in a situation where the water was guaranteed to recede. I wondered what would happen if this was on a larger, more permanent scale. Long Island fit the bill since it was just a few bridges, a tunnel, and some ferries away from being cut off from the world. So is Q Island cynical about the depths people might sink to in an emergency? I’m afraid it’s just realistic.

SRW: What’s up next on your keyboard?

RJ: Well, plans went awry after Samhain announced they were closing up shop. I had a novel under contract for next month called The Portal, about the Devil returning to a little island off Massachusetts to try again to open a portal between here and Hell. So that needs a home. I also have a serial killer thriller novel finished and a sequel to Q Island called Return to Q Island, where one man has to smuggle himself back to the island to save his mother and sister. (The place has gone seriously downhill since Melanie left.) So, I’m shopping all those titles around.

I will have a new collection of time travel stories called Forever Out of Time out on Kindle in June. It will be joining several other short story collections that range from horror to science fiction.

The easiest place to see everything I’ve written is on my Amazon page here:
There’s also a Facebook author page:
And my never-up-to-date website:

SRW: Thanks for visiting Russell. And, folks, go buy Q Island. It’s a riveting edge-of-the-seater horror thriller!

Friday, May 20, 2016

Fat guy in a kiddie swimming pool!

I know it sounds like the title of my newest horror novel or something. But herein lies true horrors.
Every Summer, I've worked hard at putting up an inflatable 20 foot swimming pool in the backyard. Nothing's better than floating on a raft, drinking a beer during 98 degrees sweltering days. It started off as something for my daughter and her friends, but I've continued the proud tradition long after my daughter moved out.

But. Clearly I'm not taking into consideration my neighbors. I'm sure I've burned their retinas out. Who wants to see an old fat guy in a kiddie swimming pool? (Well, I kinda do, but I'm too close to the subject). Besides, I don't want them calling in "Quint" from Jaws to take care of the Great White in Kansas.

Recently, my wife said, "Maybe you're getting a little old for that."

Huh. Man.

So. To pool or not to pool, the eternal question.

Of course there's an alternative scenario. With all the rain we've been having in Kansas lately, our old house can't weather the storm. Our basement's flooded.

Adult swim! I think the mice will make excellent swimming companions.

Anyway. What say you, readers? I'm putting it out there for a vote. If you chime in with a "yay" vote, I promise to post selfies all over the intronets so you can  enjoy the spectacle!

Friday, May 13, 2016

Chewing over Vicki Beautiful with author Somer Canon

Please welcome Somer (pronounced just like the season; I asked) Canon, an exciting new voice in horror and fellow refugee Samhain Publishing author.

SRW: What’s up, Somer? Thanks for darkening my doorstep.

SC: Thanks so much for having me, Stuart!  I wiped my feet on the mat, I promise!

SRW: SO…Vicki Beautiful. Your first published novella. When I read it, I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into. Once I saw where it was going, I dang near fell outta my chair. Tell everyone what they’re in for.

SC:  When I wrote this, I printed out multiple copies and I wordlessly handed it to a couple of friends and my mom.  They all had this really spectacular reaction and they said that it starts off looking like something you’d see in a Woman’s Day magazine but then things go horribly, horribly wrong.  I love that, and it is very accurate.

The story is about lifelong friends who are just getting into their 40s, so they’ve got quite a bit of history and affection between them.  As life can tend to go, things go wrong and one of the friends ends up dead and she leaves behind a set of last wishes that are so bizarre and awful that the remaining friends have to decide if they want to fulfill those last wishes.  They have to decide if they can even stomach the act.  

SRW: Somer, I know you. You’re a very nice person. But where in the world did this warped idea come from? Fever dream? Food poisoning?

SC: I’m a nice person?!? Stuart, you’re going to kill my career with a slanderous declaration like that!  But really, thank you!
This book came from a dream.  It was a dream where I went to a fancy dinner party and I was there to see a dear friend, a lovely woman with a distinctive beauty mark on her cheek.  I was sitting at this beautifully adorned dinner table wondering about my friend when a waiter in a white jacket placed a plate before me and on the plate was this pale, gelatinous piece of meat with a very recognizable beauty mark.  That dream stayed with me for days and I eventually sat down and wrote out a letter to fictional friends stating last wishes that might explain how a crazy dinner party like in my dream might have come about.

SRW: I love how the book is played straight. Temptation would’ve led me to write it as a dark comedy. But I think the fact you wrote it seriously is why it’s more effective. Extremely confrontational horror. Nicely done. Constantly, I found myself wondering what I’d do in such a surreal experience. Um, Somer, have you been to some strange dinner parties?

SC: I’ve hosted some strange dinner parties, Stuart!  Are you angling for an invitation?

SRW:  Depends on what’s on the dinner menu. Somer, you’ve expressed to me your trepidation about Vicki Beautiful not being considered horror. Um, what else would it be? And if you didn’t intend it as horror…WHAT were you thinking?

SC: There is almost no blood and gore to this book.  The horror in this book is very cerebral and understated, I think.  I’m working from a place where hindsight is telling me how wrong I was originally, but because of the sort of light touch this book takes, I was convinced that it wasn’t good enough for the horror genre.  I originally tried selling it as a thriller until an editor was nice enough to tell me that I was very wrong.  

SRW:  In today’s culture where advertising beauty is the standard that we’re being brainwashed by, Vicki stands out as a rather ghastly banner for artificiality. Honestly, in her quest for money-bought and surgeon-enhanced beauty, she’s quite an ugly character. What are your thoughts on our superficial culture? Is the book a statement against enhancements?

SC: Not at all.  I’ve known a Vicki or two in my life, and they were people who, despite that preoccupation, managed to still be wonderful people.  Yes, it made an ugly side to them in terms of being judgmental towards others, but they were still PEOPLE.  I think that if we’re talking about the faults of our superficial culture, I tend to think it puts an awful lot of pressure on those of us who, at best, are just average people.  There’s a sort of nudge to look smooth and poreless and polished that throws any sort of natural features out of the equation.  But I also think it’s important for us lowly average people to remember that the people who buy into that look are still people with personalities and inner-selves.  Books and covers, you know.  

SRW:  I loved the ending. A scene of Hitchcockian worthy suspense. We’ve discussed this before, but do you see the ending as satisfying?

SC: I know there are going to be people who yell at me about the ending.  It’s not the original ending that I had written, but I thought that ending it with a question, with a truckload of anxiety attached to it, was so much better than throwing an all-questions-answered ending in your face.  You decide if they do or if they don’t.  I think that’s better and much more satisfying leaving you groaning and yelling at your e-reader than just telling you what happens.

SRW: Okay, now I’m curious. What was the original ending?

SC: He did it.  Sloppily and tearfully, juices going everywhere.  He did it.

SRW: Alright, curiosity and appetite satiated. What’s coming out of Somer’s keyboard and mind now?

SC:  I’m working on a book about a woman with questionable morals.  She’s rumored to be a witch and her new neighbor finds that title too cute by half and asks her about it.  The woman admits to being a witch and to doing something horrible in her past to earn her hateful name.  Yes, she did something horrible but maybe, just maybe, it was justified. 
SRW: There you have it folks! Go buy Somer’s book, Vicki Beautiful now! Thank me or curse me out later. Just don’t eat while reading it.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Don Horroritos!

Ole! I have found the worst Mexican restaurant in the world and I lay claim to it like a Conquistador because it's in my neighborhood.

I'm talking about Don Chillito's. The on-line reviews are terrible. For good reason.
Of course I decided to take my daughter and nieces there. Call it trial by fire. Gotta grow up some time. Showing 'em how hard it is to live on the mean streets of suburban Kansas.

The menu is a disorganized nightmare. You can choose between the regular burrito, the Big Top regular burrito, the Texas burrito and, last but not least, the Big Top Texas burrito. Next is your choice of toppings: Velveeta Overload, Chili Indigestion, Mystery Slaw, and Gastronomical Meltdown. From there we enter the realm of goes on and on. Totally confusing.

The employees then assail you with indecipherable questions. "Would you like extra Big Top CCQ sauce inside and/or smothered?" As my daughter said, just nod and smile. The sooner we order, the sooner we're back to an orderly world.
The chip trough is a modern unsanitary miracle. It's amazing this restaurant passes proper health codes. Kids dig their hands into the all you can eat chip trough, piling up their plates. Don't forget the salsa! "Chunky blended" or "mild blended." Probably better we don't know what the blends are.

The best part, though, is the wall of microwaves. Nine microwaves stacked one on top of another. They don't even try to hide it. I ordered a regular burrito Big-Top. Bombs away into the microwave! Not so delicious big ol' plate of melted velveeta with some beans and flour beneath.

This restaurant is older than I am. And much more popular. I used to work with a woman who said her two sisters rave about it, travel across the city to eat there. Oh, and the food made my doctor sick. High praise indeed.
My brother ended up spending quite a bit of time in the bathroom. In Don Chillito's defense, he did say it was quite a nice restaurant.